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It's Time For Congress To Judge The President's Fitness To Serve

Starting the process will rein in a president who is undermining American ideals— and bring the debate about his fitness for office into Congress, where it belongs.

Yoni Appelbaum

On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump stood on the steps of the Capitol, raised his right hand, and solemnly swore to faithfully execute the office of president of the United States and, to the best of his ability, to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. He has not kept that promise. ¶ Instead, he has mounted a concerted challenge to the separation of powers, to the rule of law, and to the civil liberties enshrined in our founding documents. He has purposefully inflamed America’s divisions. He has set himself against the American idea, the principle that all of us—of every race, gender, and creed—are created equal. ¶ This is not a partisan judgment. Many of the president’s fiercest critics have emerged from within his own party. Even officials and observers who support his policies are appalled by his pronouncements, and those who have the most firsthand experience of governance are also the most alarmed by how Trump is governing. ¶ “The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naïveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate,” the late senator and former Republican presidential nominee John McCain lamented last summer. “The president has not risen to the mantle of the office,” the GOP’s other recent nominee, the former governor and now senator Mitt Romney, wrote in January. ¶ The oath of office is a president’s promise to subordinate his private desires to the public interest, to serve the nation as a whole rather than any faction within it. Trump displays no evidence that he understands these obligations. To the contrary, he has routinely privileged his self-interest above the responsibilities of the presidency. He has failed to disclose or divest himself from his extensive financial interests, instead using the platform of the presidency to promote them. This has encouraged a wide array of actors, domestic and foreign, to seek to influence his decisions by funneling cash to properties such as Mar-a-Lago (the “Winter White House,” as Trump has branded it) and his hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Courts are now considering whether some of those payments violate the Constitution.

More troubling still, Trump has demanded that public officials put their loyalty to him ahead of their duty to the public. On his first full day in office, he ordered his press secretary to lie about the size of his inaugural crowd. He never forgave his first attorney general for failing to shut down investigations into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and ultimately forced his resignation. “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty,” Trump told his first FBI director, and then fired him when he refused to pledge it.

Trump has evinced little respect for the rule of law, attempting to have the Department of Justice launch criminal probes into his critics and political adversaries. He has repeatedly attacked both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. His efforts to mislead, impede, and shut down Mueller’s investigation have now led the special counsel to consider whether the president obstructed justice.

As for the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution, Trump has repeatedly trampled upon them. He pledged to ban entry to the United States on the basis of religion, and did his best to follow through. He has attacked the press as the “enemy of the people” and barred critical outlets and reporters from attending his events. He has assailed black protesters. He has called for his critics in private industry to be fired from their jobs. He has falsely alleged that America’s electoral system is subject to massive fraud, impugning election results with which he disagrees as irredeemably tainted. Elected officials of both parties have repeatedly condemned such statements, which has only spurred the president to repeat them.

These actions are, in sum, an attack on the very foundations of America’s constitutional democracy.

The electorate passes judgment on its presidents and their shortcomings every four years. But the Framers were concerned that a president could abuse his authority in ways that would undermine the democratic process and that could not wait to be addressed. So they created a mechanism for considering whether a president is subverting the rule of law or pursuing his own self-interest at the expense of the general welfare—in short, whether his continued tenure in office poses a threat to the republic. This mechanism is impeachment.

Trump’s actions during his first two years in office clearly meet, and exceed, the criteria to trigger this fail-safe. But the United States has grown wary of impeachment. The history of its application is widely misunderstood, leading Americans to mistake it for a dangerous threat to the constitutional order.

That is precisely backwards. It is absurd to suggest that the Constitution would delineate a mechanism too potent to ever actually be employed. Impeachment, in fact, is a vital protection against the dangers a president like Trump poses. And, crucially, many of its benefits— to the political health of the country, to the stability of the constitutional system—accrue irrespective of its ultimate result. Impeachment is a process, not an outcome, a rule-bound procedure for investigating a president, considering evidence, formulating charges, and deciding whether to continue on to trial.

The fight over whether Trump should be removed from office is already raging, and distorting everything it touches. Activists are radicalizing in opposition to a president they regard as dangerous. Within the government, unelected bureaucrats who believe the president is acting unlawfully are disregarding his orders, or working to subvert his agenda. By denying the debate its proper outlet, Congress has succeeded only in intensifying its pressures. And by declining to tackle the question headon, it has deprived itself of its primary means of reining in the chief executive.

With a newly seated Democratic majority, the House of Representatives can no longer dodge its constitutional duty. It must immediately open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump, and bring the debate out of the court of public opinion and into Congress, where it belongs.

DEMOCRATS PICKED UP 40 seats in the House of Representatives in the 2018 elections. Despite this clear rebuke of Trump— and despite all that is publicly known about his offenses—party elders remain reluctant to impeach him. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, has argued that it’s too early to talk about impeachment. Many Democrats avoided discussing the idea on the campaign trail, preferring to focus on health care. When, on the first day of the 116th Congress, a freshman representative declared her intent to impeach Trump and punctuated her comments with an obscenity, she was chastised by members of the old guard—not just for how she raised the issue, but for raising it at all.

In no small part, this trepidation is due to the fact that the last effort to remove an American president from office ended in political fiasco. When the House impeached Bill Clinton, in 1998, his popularity soared; in the Senate, even some Republicans voted against convicting him of the charges.

Pelosi and her antediluvian leadership team served in Congress during those fights two decades ago, and they seem determined not to repeat their rivals’ mistakes. Polling has shown significant support for impeach ment over the course of Trump’s tenure, but the most favorable polls still indicate that it lacks majority support. To move against Trump now, Democrats seem to believe, would only strengthen the president’s hand. Better to wait for public opinion to turn decisively against him and then use impeachment to ratify that view. This is the received wisdom on impeachment, the overlearned lesson of the Clinton years: House Republicans got out ahead of public opinion, and turned a president beset by scandal into a sympathetic figure.

Instead, Democrats intend to be a thorn in Trump’s side. House committees will conduct hearings into a wide range of issues, calling administration officials to testify under oath. They will issue subpoenas and demand documents, emails, and other infor mation. The chair of the Ways and Means Committee has the power to request Trump’s elusive tax returns from the IRS and, with the House’s approval, make them public.

Other institutions are already acting as brakes on the Trump presidency. To the president’s vocal frustration, federal judges have repeatedly enjoined his executive orders. Robert Mueller’s investigation has brought convictions of, or plea deals from, key figures in his campaign as well as his administration. Some Democrats are clearly hoping that if they stall for long enough, Mueller will deliver them from Trump, obviating the need to act themselves.

But Congress can’t outsource its responsibilities to federal prosecutors. No one knows when Mueller’s report will arrive, what form it will take, or what it will say. Even if Mueller alleges criminal misconduct on the part of the president, under Justice Department guidelines, a sitting president cannot be indicted. Nor will the host of congressional hearings fulfill that branch’s obligations. The view they will offer of his conduct will be both limited and scattershot, focused on discrete acts. Only by authorizing a dedicated impeachment inquiry can the House begin to assemble disparate allegations into a coherent picture, forcing lawmakers to consider both whether specific charges are true and whether the president’s abuses of his power justify his removal.

Waiting also presents dangers. With every passing day, Trump further undermines our national commitment to America’s ideals. And impeachment is a long process. Typically, the House first votes to open an investigation—the hearings would likely take months—then votes again to present charges to the Senate. By delaying the start of the process, in the hope that even clearer evidence will be produced by Mueller or some other source, lawmakers are delaying its eventual conclusion. Better to forge ahead, weighing what is already known and incorporating additional material as it becomes available.

Critics of impeachment insist that it would diminish the presidency, creating an executive who serves at the sufferance of Congress. But defenders of executive prerogatives should be the first to recognize that the presidency has more to gain than to lose from Trump’s impeachment. After a century in which the office accumulated awesome power, Trump has done more to weaken executive authority than any recent president. The judiciary now regards Trump’s orders with a jaundiced eye, creating precedents that will constrain his successors. His own political appointees boast to reporters, or brag in anonymous op-eds, that they routinely work to counter his policies. Congress is contemplating actions on trade and defense that will hem in the president. His opponents repeatedly aim at the man but hit the office.

Democrats’ fear—that impeachment will backfire on them—is likewise unfounded. The mistake Republicans made in impeaching Bill Clinton wasn’t a matter of timing. They identified real and troubling misconduct—then applied the wrong remedy to fix it. Clinton’s acts disgraced the presidency, and his lies under oath and efforts to obstruct the investigation may well have been crimes. The question that determines whether an act is impeachable, though, is whether it endangers American democracy. As a House Judiciary Committee staff report put it in 1974, in the midst of the Watergate investigation: “The purpose of impeachment is not personal punishment; its function is primarily to maintain constitutional government.” Impeachable offenses, it found, included “under mining the integrity of office, disregard of constitutional duties and oath of office, arrogation of power, abuse of the governmental process, adverse impact on the system of government.”

Trump’s bipartisan critics are not merely arguing that he has lied or dishonored the presidency. The most serious allegations against him ultimately rest on the charge that he is attacking the bedrock of American democracy. That is the situation impeachment was devised to address.

AFTER THE HOUSE impeaches a president, the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate to remove him from office. Opponents of impeachment point out that, despite the greater severity of the prospective charges against Trump, there is little reason to believe the Senate is more likely to remove him than it was to remove Clinton. Indeed, the Senate’s Republican majority has shown little will to break with the president—though that may change. The process of impeachment itself is likely to shift public opinion, both by highlighting what’s already known and by bringing new evidence to light. If Trump’s support among Republican voters erodes, his support in the Senate may do the same. One lesson of Richard Nixon’s impeachment is that when legislators conclude a presidency is doomed, they can switch allegiances in the blink of an eye.

But this sort of vote-counting, in any case, misunderstands the point of impeachment. The question of whether impeachment is justified should not be confused with the question of whether it is likely to succeed in removing a president from office. The country will benefit greatly regardless of how the Senate ultimately votes. Even if the impeachment of Donald Trump fails to produce a conviction in the Senate, it can safeguard the constitutional order from a president who seeks to undermine it. The protections of the process alone are formidable. They come in five distinct forms.

The first is that once an impeachment inquiry begins, the president loses control of the public conversation. Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton each discovered this, much to their chagrin. Johnson, the irascible Tennessee Democrat who succeeded to the presidency in 1865 upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, quickly found himself at odds with the Republican Congress. He shattered precedents by delivering a series of inflammatory addresses that dominated the headlines and forced his opponents into a reactive posture. The launching of impeachment inquiries changed that. Day after day, Congress held hearings. Day after day, newspapers splashed the proceedings across their front pages. Instead of focusing on Johnson’s fear mongering, the press turned its attention to the president’s missteps, to the infighting within his administration, and to all the things that congressional investigators believed he had done wrong.

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March 2019